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Perdue's budget plans carry local implications

By Jason A. Smithand Joel Hall

jsmith@henryherald.com

Gov. Sonny Perdue is emphasizing the need to invest in Georgia's future, with a financial outlook that lawmakers say will have a direct impact on Henry and Clayton counties.

The governor gave his annual State of the State address Wednesday, during a joint session of the General Assembly. Perdue unveiled his budget recommendations for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Amendments to the 2009 budget bring its proposed total to $19.2 billion, with a budget of $20.2 billion for 2010.

The key to both numbers, said Perdue, is to approach the future with the right mindset.

"This is a pivotal moment in our nation's history," he said. "It is a moment in which we are asked to see ... beyond the circumstances of the moment, to the big picture - a picture that is informed by our history, bolstered by our character and steeled by our will to succeed."

The proposed budget includes a $1.2 billion bond package, with the goal of creating approximately 20,000 jobs in Georgia, for new construction at universities, technical schools and other educational establishments.

He also voiced support for a merit-based, pay system for teachers, to reward those whose instruction is shown to increase student achievement.

"Education means opportunity," he said. "We spend more than half of our state budget on education because we know that opportunity is discovered in Georgia's classrooms."

State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough) was present for the governor's speech, and said the bond package has significant implications for residents in Henry County, and surrounding areas.

"The Henry delegation and local officials have been lobbying to get a technical school in McDonough," said Davis. "The governor has taken this to heart, and has placed $8.5 million in the budget for the project. It's a big win for our county."

Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, responded to that news with apparent excitement. Pippin, along with other members of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce Foundation, partnered with the Henry County Board of Education and the Henry County Development Authority, last year, in an effort to increase educational opportunities in the area.

She said she is hopeful the budget will pass in its current form. "If the governor's budget prevails during the 2009 Session, with our line item intact, Henry County will be the site of a ... facility adjacent to Henry County High School," she said. "We are well on our way to seeing our dream become a reality."

State Sen. Gail Buckner (D-Morrow) was similarly pleased with the proposed measure. She said the allotment would provide students in Clayton County with greater access to technical training. "A lot of Clayton students will be using that classroom," said Buckner. "Students are now having to drive to Spalding County, or DeKalb County, or into Atlanta for technical training. This gives them one more option that is closer to home."

The governor's recommendations for the state's fiscal 2010 budget also set aside more than $4 million for Clayton County to build new learning facilities. Clayton State University has $2.1 million earmarked in the governor's budget for the design of a new science building, and the county library system is down for $2 million to help with the construction of a new branch in Forest Park.

Once built, the new science building at CSU would house 14 teaching labs, 10 research labs, a greenhouse, support areas, and an animal facility. John Shiffert, university spokesperson, said the facility is needed to meet a growing demand in the sciences.

"Every student is required to take a science course, but the problem is we presently don't have the space to meet the demand," he said. "As it is, we're going late in the night to try to fit everyone in, but we're backed up to an area where we're running out of space."

Buckner, who fought along with the Clayton County Legislative Delegation for the funding, said the new science facility would attract more talented scientists to the Southern Crescent.

"In the governor's speech today, he talked about the need for more math and science teachers around the state," she said. "By adding this building to Clayton State, we have the ability to have more science teachers and attract more science faculty."

Another need for the community, Buckner added, is a new library for Forest Park. She said the community has "outgrown" the current facility, which is the second-oldest branch in the Clayton library system.

Carol Stewart, director of Clayton County Library Services, said she is excited about the governor's recommendation for the state to contribute $2 million to the new library, which will cost approximately $4.5 million to build. She said the new facility would provide 16,000 square feet of space, up from the current library's 8,100 square feet, and would include amenities such as: a materials collection of 6,500 items; 30 public-use computers; an instructional computer lab; a public meeting room; a homework help center; and a "teen scene" area for teenagers to relax and do their homework.

"That library opened in 1967 and it is 8,100 square feet," said Stewart. "Forty-one years is a long time for a community that has grown so enormously. Anyone who can't climb stairs can't get in there. Having a facility for them that is adequate would be wonderful."

She said the county would match the state's $2 million with $2.5 million from its 2008 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), if the $2 million is approved by the General Assembly.

Buckner said Clayton County may also feel the benefit of a proposed $4.9 million grant to be shared between Clayton and Rockdale counties, which would provide Clayton with 20 new beds for its Regional Youth Detention Center.

Perdue also addressed the health care industry in the state, by proposing a 1.6 percent fee on hospitals and health-insurance plans. His goal, he said, is to raise reimbursement rates for providers and strengthen the state's trauma network.

Rep. Davis, however, responded with concern about that concept, saying he is "not sure that's the best avenue to take." But he did not elaborate on his position.